The secret lives of writers (and their day jobs)
Caitriona Lally, Rooney Prize winner, is a Trinity cleaner. How do other writers make ends meet?
Caitriona Lally, who works as a cleaner in Trinity College Dublion, where she recently won the Rooney Prize for Fiction. Photograph: Alan Betson
When Caitriona Lally won the Rooney Prize for Literature for her debut novel Eggshells, the media focus was on her day job. Lally is a cleaner at Trinity College Dublin, scrubbing and mopping in the small hours of the morning so that the “paying gig” is over early and the business of writing can begin. For outsiders, for the press, this is incongruous, something to be remarked upon, discussed, dissected.
For insiders, the interesting detail is that Lally is open about the less-than-prestige work that has paid, and will continue to pay, the bills – despite the €10,000 prize set aside mainly for childcare – as she diligently writes the next book, and the next. Writers, artists – most people – in this country and indeed throughout the world are broke; the question is whether to admit to it or not. Whether to own up to having to do something beyond that desk, that pen, that laptop.
Despite living in a world where multi-hyphenate careers (see Emma Gannon’s recent The Multi-Hyphen Method) are on the rise both numerically and in terms of respectability, and where book piracy and big discounts to wholesalers are two of many factors affecting authors’ ever-dwindling incomes, the image of the writer (of any artist) as a full-time creative persists.
The day job – a misnomer, perhaps, because it may well be a night job, an afternoon gig, an online commitment – is not just for struggling amateurs
Colin Walsh, whose story Between the Waves featured in last month’s Hennessy New Irish Writing, notes what happens when he tells fellow writers about his day job (copywriting, the road oft taken for creative writers): “You usually get people who just take it for granted that no one makes a living off writing and you gotta pay your rent. Doing a day job, for them, is just a given. At the other end of the spectrum, you get this slightly confused sneer, like you’re a dog that’s just started playing a piano concerto. With their shoes on your paws.”
To admit to not having reached the Holy Grail that is the status of full-time writer can be shameful, a sign of not having quite “made it” yet.
But in reality, the day job – a misnomer, perhaps, because it may well be a night job, an afternoon gig, an online commitment – is not just for struggling amateurs. Nuala O’Connor, whose acclaimed fourth novel (and 13th book) Becoming Belle, was published recently, tells me she hasn’t “had a ‘real’ job since 2004”, but the list of activities she counts as part of her writing life is a long one: not only writing her books but “writing articles/essays, reviewing, mentoring, teaching, reading, panels, editing, blurbing, guest speaking, judging literary comps etc”. With all this, an average year nets her €14,000, a “good year” €20,000.
That O’Connor cites this, albeit good-naturedly, as a kind of “madness” is understandable. Many writers have reconciled themselves to not expecting their creative work pay their bills. Poet Katie Donovan, whose most recent collection is Off Duty, argues that a day job “is not just a necessary evil. It can offer inspiration. It can be a great way to retreat when the writing is not going well. It provides structure to the day, and makes a writer grateful for the time that is available to use for writing. Once there is some income secured, then a writer may write freely, without wondering if the writing is going to sell.”
Primary school teacher and writer Kieran Fanning, author of The Black Lotus, also echoes this sense of appreciation for the regular gig. “It gives you financial stability, and gets you away from the loneliness of a writer’s desk. It allows you to socialise and engage properly with the world, which in turn feeds into your writing. It also makes you value your writing time, because it’s so scarce. I don’t have time to get writer’s block.”
I don’t have a day job any more, but the income from actually writing is probably about a 10th of my total income
It can be difficult for those with a regular pay cheque – however paltry – to appreciate, rather than squirm under, that security. For fantasy author Celine Kiernan, author of Begone the Raggedy Witches, who has previously worked as an animator in the film industry, the yearning for “some form of stable PAYE income” led her to train as a craft butcher several years ago, a job she still holds due to its “sense of satisfaction” and demand for physical skill and care. The use of “stable” here in relation to income is something many artists of all stripes can relate to; despite the image of the creative as a carefree spirit, a great deal of energy is expended in managing irregular and infrequent payments as well as ensuring that they are reported appropriately to the tax authorities (the artists’ exemption is not automatic – paperwork! – and also does not provide exemption from USC).
At the same time, that stability necessarily steals time and energy away from creative pursuits. Kiernan notes that she “writes like a demon” for three days a week; the other four her “writing brain more or less hibernates”. Sheena Wilkinson, whose YA novel Star By Star has just been named a Future Classic by BookTrust, acknowledges the trade-off she has made in the last few years by giving up her teaching job. “I don’t have a day job any more,” she says, “but the income from actually writing is probably about a 10th of my total income.” The rest comes from “writing-related activities – teaching a module at TCD, being an advisory fellow for the Royal Literary Fund, and quite a lot of school and library events”.
Although she doesn’t regret setting aside the teaching gig, she acknowledges that despite the former stress of juggling her writing career with full-time teaching, she didn’t have to worry about money – just trying to find the time. “Now it’s very different. I still struggle to get time to write but instead of simply blaming the day job I look at my diary and ask myself how I allowed things to get so crowded.” She cites the standard freelancer dilemma: “You’re so scared of saying no to something in case you’re never given that opportunity again.”
Writers with day jobs are often all too aware that they must turn down certain writing-related opportunities. YA author David Owen, whose third novel All The Lonely People is out in January, notes that “there’s definitely an issue around privilege and the better chances of success people who don’t need to work a day job have. While nobody is guaranteed success, being able to write more quickly and potentially get more books on the market more quickly, while also having the time to do events, visit schools, etc (and all the hustle getting those gigs entails) to promote those books can definitely be a huge advantage in boosting your writing career. For example, I write YA, but can’t do any school visits because I would have to take annual leave to do so. That means I lose out on a major means of promoting my books.”
I treat it like a career, but it’s probably closer in financial terms to a lucrative hobby
School visits, workshops, panels and other events aren’t just promotional tools, though – they also, as Deirdre Sullivan, author of last year’s CBI Book of the Year Tangleweed and Brine, notes, “generally bring in more than the books do”. Sullivan, whose day job (“day, night and sometimes weekend job”) is as a special class teacher in a school for young people with autism, counts her blessings and luck as a published author (“I get to do my dream and have it happen”) while also being aware that the monetary rewards are slim. “I treat it like a career, but it’s probably closer in financial terms to a lucrative hobby.” Her permanent role in a school means that her extra-curricular teaching is limited to weekends and school holidays: “I do sometimes long for an extra day in the week, for writing and, like, a nap.”
Creatives with day jobs, alongside the balancing act (not exclusive to artists, of course) of managing both their regular work and their outside projects (and general “life” stuff), also face the question of whether to lead a double life. Do you tell the guys in the office that you’ve got a book out? Do you mention to the literary folk at the book launch that you have another job? Some writers solve this by writing about their job; Lorna Sixsmith, a dairy farmer, whose latest book is Till The Cows Come Home, has never made any secret of her day job and works around it. “I don’t do much writing during the spring calving season . . . My first three books were published in the autumn, which worked well with the farming calendar; I had time for marketing the books.”
For others, it’s a conscious decision to share the other aspects of their lives. ER Murray, author of The Nine Lives trilogy, talks about her “work” writing (focused on poker and travel) as well as school events and online tutoring because she believes “it’s good for aspiring writers to know the realities of what a writing career means so they can prepare. Otherwise, it could turn out to be a huge disappointment or even an unattainable dream. I always say I know some writers earning a wage from their books, but very few. I want people to know that it is possible to work and write and remain joyful – to me, the holy grail is still making a living writing.”
This year, I won the 2018 Laureate’s Prize in the UK, chosen by Carol Ann Duffy. I had to crowdfund just to raise the money to travel over and accept the award
But it’s not always a wise move to mention your creative achievements in the jobs market: poet Angela T Carr (How to Lose Your Home & Save Your Life), who is trained as an architect, notes: “At interview, nobody is interested in the fact I’m a writer. It’s not seen as a useful or profitable skill. I would love to be able to focus on writing full-time but I don’t see how that’s possible. This year, I won the 2018 Laureate’s Prize in the UK, chosen by UK poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy – I had to crowdfund just to raise the money to travel over and accept the award. I felt ashamed having to ask for help but friends and the writing community rose to the occasion, despite most of them being in the exact same situation. No writer expects a livelihood to be handed to them but it shouldn’t be this difficult. Time that should go to writing is taken up with the ongoing stresses of figuring out how to survive.”
For all that one might romanticise living in a garret, creativity is hindered rather than helped by hunger, cold and anxieties over impending bills. If the day job is a part of most artists’ lives – and barring a social revolution, it seems likely – perhaps the least we can do is to remove the sense that having one equals failure, not having yet “made it”, and instead reflects the realities of many working writers – and allows, rather than constrains, many of the books, stories, poems and other works that make their way into our lives.
“Even years when I can afford to spend all week writing I always have other things on the go. I like working on lots of different projects – it keeps me engaged with the world and sparks all kinds of ideas. I’d go funny sitting at my desk all day, every day. I love the variety.” Sarah Webb, author of Blazing A Trail
“I have written during lunch breaks and extensively during my commute, and, I hold my hands up, as deadlines for edits and proofing approach, I have, on occasion, used the last 30 minutes or so in a work day to get bits done!” Maura McElhone, author of Falling for a Farmer
“I am aware of how lucky I am to be working in a fulfilling day job, and being able to manage to balance my writing life with that and family life and parenthood. But there is often a sense that it is sheer luck and pluck that are getting me through, and this fills me with anxiety. It can be an exhausting life. What motivates me is the sense that you only have one life and I’d rather look back and say I was busy than I was bored.” Jessica Traynor, whose new collection is The Quick
“It’s annoying to work all day long and have people think that you’re sitting watching Jeremy Kyle or something (is that still a thing?) but to be honest I just ignore those people now. I work hard and I write hard and I feel less inclined to have to justify it as the years go on. But I guess that since I’m writing this there’s still part of me that wishes for the solidarity. It is hard to write with the pram in the hall, and it’s hard if you don’t have a room of one’s own etc. and we’ve made sacrifices as a family to enable all of us to live the kind of lives we’re aiming at creatively. But we’ve also been fortunate enough to be able to do that, and lots of people aren’t. We do need to ask where all the working class published authors are. What is being done to ensure that working class voices are represented in publishing?” Shirley Anne Macmillan, author of The Unknowns
“I always told people at work that I was a writer, and they were very interested, enthusiastic and impressed. In that way, it was refreshing to be around non-writerly people because it reminds you that it’s actually kind of a big deal to be a published author. When you’re just hanging out with writers all the time, in real life or on social media, it starts to feel like everyone has a book out and it’s just a regular thing. People at work were supportive too, and some read my books and became big fans. I also told writerly people that I had a job, though it did make me feel like a bit of a loser at times – for instance, with an author who was with the same publisher and at the same stage as me, but who was being paid to write full-time.” Clodagh Murphy, author of Some Girls Do
“I didn’t tell many people at the start. Partially for myself because if I failed no one would know. Silly, but true. Eventually word just sort of got out. I was spotted writing during work breaks and over the night shifts. I think most people were quite encouraging but I don’t think anyone expected it to amount to anything.” Daniel Mooney, author of The Great Unexpected
“The flights of fancy that people assume that writers exist in does not happen. Life happens and I try to make a space where I can work at my writing.” Olivia Hope, author of Be Wild, Little One
“I’d love to exist solely on writing income one day, but on the other hand that creates a huge pressure; it’s not so bad wearing lots of different hats. I do think the structure of our publishing industry, whereby you need a completed novel in hand before even approaching agents, makes it virtually impossible for low-income earners or anyone struggling to raise a family to get a foothold.” Sarah Stewart, author of Glisk
“I think to those unfamiliar with the reality of publishing, the writer working a day job is someone who hasn’t made it, no matter how much they’ve published. (At least if the job is completely unrelated to writing). But for most of us, the day job is not a stop-gap. It’s rent. It’s knowing if you break your leg, you won’t have to find two sticks and set it yourself. It’s your child’s college fund. In short, it’s life. But this is tough to work into a casual conversation.” Kathleen Donohue, author of Ashes of Fiery Weather
Claire Hennessy is a YA writer and co-editor of the literary journal Banshee